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Photo: Poetry Out Loud
Janae Claxton of South Carolina is the 2018 Poetry Out Loud National Champion. A new survey suggests interest in poetry is growing in the United States.

I’ve been thinking about poetry lately. The team of family and friends keeping my sister company before her surgery was made up of people who enjoy poetry — reading, listening, memorizing, or reciting poetry. My sister herself knows a lot of poems by heart, and we all had fun quoting what we knew and looking up favorites on the web. Some of the poems were so moving, we had to stop and recover ourselves.

Poetry is the right thing in difficult times. And it seems my sister’s hospital team is not alone in feeling a need for it. A new survey shows that poetry reading is up nationwide.

Sunil Iyengar, National Endowment for the Arts director of research and analysis, writes at the NEA Art Works Blog, “Poetry reading in the United States has increased since five years previously. Nearly 12 percent (11.7 percent) of adults read poetry in the last year, according to new data from the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). That’s 28 million adults. As a share of the total U.S. adult population, this poetry readership is the highest on record over a 15-year period of conducting the SPPA, a research partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau. …

“Growth in poetry reading is seen across most demographic sub-groups (e.g., gender, age, race/ethnicity, and education level), but here are highlights:

• Young adults have increased their lead, among all age groups, as poetry readers. Among 18-24-year-olds, the poetry-reading rate more than doubled, to 17.5 percent in 2017, up from 8.2 percent in 2012. Among all age groups, 25-34-year-olds had the next highest rate of poetry-reading: 12.3 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 2012.

• Women also showed notable gains (14.5 percent in 2017, up from 8.0 percent in 2012). As in prior years, women accounted for more than 60 percent of all poetry-readers. Men’s poetry-reading rate grew from 5.2 percent in 2012 to 8.7 percent in 2017.

• Among racial/ethnic subgroups, African Americans (15.3 percent in 2017 up from 6.9 percent in 2012), Asian Americans (12.6 percent, up from 4.8 percent), and other non-white, non-Hispanic groups (13.5 percent, up from 4.7 percent) now read poetry at the highest rates. Furthermore, poetry-reading increased among Hispanics (9.7 percent, up from 4.9 percent) and non-Hispanic whites (11.4 percent, up from 7.2 percent).

• Adults with only some college education showed sharp increases in their poetry-reading rates.  Of those who attended but did not graduate from college, 13.0 percent read poetry in 2017, up from 6.6 percent in 2012. College graduates (15.2 percent, up from 8.7 percent) and adults with graduate or professional degrees (19.7 percent, up from 12.5 percent) also saw sizeable increases.

• Urban and rural residents read poetry at a comparable rate (11.8 percent of urban/metro and 11.2 percent of rural/non-metro residents). …

“More than 300,000 students from more than 2,300 high schools around the country participate in [the Poetry Out Loud] recitation competition. Last April, champions from 53 states and territories competed in the National Finals here in D.C. This year’s winner was high school senior Janae Claxton from the First Baptist School of Charleston, South Carolina. …

“Each year, the NEA Big Read supports community reading programs in approximately 75 communities nationwide, and includes poetry books such as [Muscogee (Creek) member] Joy Harjo’s How We Became Human and Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke in the available titles.”

Iyengar speculates that use of social media to promote poetry may explain part of the expanded interest. As for me, I think the obliqueness and beauty of good poetry help people to get their heads around big, impossible things.

More.

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Thank you for all the lovely things you have written. My sister has a long road ahead, but she is a strong person and is facing it well. Ms. Mighty Mouse.

I actually saw a Ms. Mighty Mouse sculpture on my walk and took a picture. Unlike her, my sister has both her arms and all her faculties.

I liked the Alice Walker poetry mural I saw, too, and will repeat the poem here as my sister loves poetry. In fact, the day before her surgery, the four of us who were gathered in her room had the best time quoting poetry at each other. It was a lot of fun.

The Nature of This Flower Is to Bloom

Rebellious. Living.
Against the Elemental Crush.
A Song of Color
Blooming
For Deserving Eyes.
Blooming Gloriously
For its Self.

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Photo: Brain Pickings
Kelli Anderson works on paper flowers for an animation illustrating Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism.”

If you haven’t discovered Maria Popova’s blog Brain Pickings yet, I hope that you will. Not only do I got the very best ideas there for books to buy the grandchildren, I learn more than I can say about literature and science — and the intersection of the two.

In one recent post, Popova talks about asking a cut-paper artist to create a short animation to illustrate a Jane Hirshfield poem. I loved reading about the thought process behind this project.

“One spring morning in 2017, walking along a San Francisco sidewalk,” writes Popova, “I was arrested by the sight of a tiny weed poking through the crevice between a concrete wall and a chain link fence, boldly blooming in its yellow gramophone blossoms. I stood there marveling at its persistence, remembering Gwendolyn Brooks’s beautiful lines: ‘Wherever life can grow, it will. / It will sprout out, / and do the best it can.’

“Poetry was on my mind that day — I was in the final stages of composing the inaugural Universe in Verseand was on my way to meet the poet and ordained Buddhist Jane Hirshfield, whose work I had cherished for years and who had kindly contributed to the program her mighty protest poem about the silencing of science and nature.

“A year passed. When I invited Jane to participate in the second annual Universe in Verse, we chose her spare and lovely poem ‘Optimism’ for the show. … It instantly reminded me of the irrepressible yellow blossoms I had seen the day Jane and I first met. I had a sudden vision of bringing the poem to life in an animated stop-motion short film. …

“I enlisted the imaginative help of artist, designer, papercraft engineer, and my longtime collaborator Kelli Anderson — a wrester of wonder from ordinary objects and creator of the wondrous This Book Is a Planetarium. …

OPTIMISM
by Jane Hirshfield
[from Each Happiness Ringed by Lions]

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth. …

“Find more highlights from The Universe in Versehere.”

Read the rest of Popova’s post at Brain Pickings, here, where you can also enjoy the delightful animation made from cut paper. (I’m thinking 18th C botanical paper artist Mary Delany would have loved the ability to create an animation.)

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Photo: Ben Fractenberg
Jason Reynolds is a 
New York Times bestselling author, a National Book Award Honoree, a Kirkus Award winner, a Walter Dean Myers Award winner, an NAACP Image Award Winner, and the recipient of multiple Coretta Scott King honors.

Some children and teens who think they don’t like literature can really open up to it through poetry that is less intimidating. That’s the view of Jason Reynolds, author of the young adult novel Long Way Down, among others. Recently, he talked to PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff about using poetry to capture the attention of reluctant readers.

“Woodruff: While Hollywood has figured out how to get boys to watch movies, the formula is trickier for getting boys to read, especially among those who have already expressed frustration and boredom with books.

“Reynolds: If you were to tell me that you were afraid of dogs, I wouldn’t then return to you with a pack of pit bulls. … What I might do is casually walk with you by one of those doggy day cares. The ones with the pups small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Yippy little fur balls that get so excited, their tails wag the entire back halves of their bodies. The dogs that grin and want nothing more than to lap your skin with fervent affection. …

“So then, why, when it comes to young people who don’t like reading, who feel intimidated by literature, do we answer that cry with an onslaught of the very thing they fear? Why do we show up with a pack of pit bulls in the form of pages, and expect them to stop running away?

“Perhaps they haven’t found the right style of book because, sometimes it isn’t about subject matter, or voice, or point of view. …

“For some kids, those words [on the page] — the amount of words — is equivalent to a snarling dog. So, why not start with the less threatening, palm-sized pup in the window? In this case, poetry.

“Poetry has the ability to create entire moments with just a few choice words. The spacing and line breaks create rhythm, a helpful musicality, a natural flow. The separate stanzas aid in perpetuating a kind of incremental reading, one small chunk at a time.

“And the white space, for an intimidated reader, adds breathability to a seemingly suffocating task. …

“With the incredible selection of poetry and novels and verse from past to present, this is an opportune time to use them to chip away at bibliophobia. Less words on the page, more white space, without necessarily sacrificing the narrative elements.

“And once young people experience turning those pages, once the rush of comprehension and completion laps at their psyches for the first time, perhaps they will know they need not fear a thing created to love them, and for them to love.”

Read a 50-word poetic narrative that Reynolds wrote to draw in kids, here. See also this post on “poetry slams,” another way to get young people engaged in language arts.

My thanks to poet Ronnie Hess for posting the Reynolds piece on Facebook.

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Photo: eGuide Travel
The highlands of Papua, New Guinea, are among the isolated places that linguists search for speakers of dying languages.

I’ve blogged before about linguists and others who are trying to preserve languages spoken by only a few people. The belief is that there is intrinsic value in such endangered languages and that they are key to understanding cultures. Recently I saw that one group is focusing on a particular manifestation of rare languages — their poems.

Fiona Macdonald writes at the BBC about the Endangered Poetry Project.

” ‘They fly to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea and there they take a bus for three days and then they hike over a mountain and then they take a canoe and then they get to this little bay with 300 people,’ ” she reports, quoting Mandana Seyfeddinipur, head of the Endangered Languages Archive at London’s SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies]. …

” They are ‘PhD students of 25 with a digital camera, a digital audio recorder and solar panels.’ …

“ ‘They live with the communities for months at a time, and develop social relationships, and talk to them and record them, and then they come back and they give me this SD card. … ‘The only record that we have of this language is in this tiny SD card.’ …

“The newly launched Endangered Poetry Project aims to tackle [language] loss at another level. ‘Languages are dying out at an astonishing rate: a language is being lost every two weeks,’ says the National Poetry Librarian Chris McCabe. ‘And each of those languages has a poetic tradition of some sort.’ …

“The project has issued a call-out to members of the public, asking for poems written in an endangered or vulnerable language. ‘In the first week, we’ve had over a dozen submissions in about 10 languages,’ says McCabe. ‘That includes poems in Breton, and poems in a dialect of Breton called Vannes. We’ve had a poem in Alsatian, and the Sardinian dialect Logudorese. We’re interested in these variations in language in different places as well, which can often be markedly different from the established language. …

” ‘You get a focus on place – in poems we’ve received from Sardinia, for example, there’s a focus on the mountain range there,’ says McCabe. ‘It shows you where people felt drawn to for inspiration in the landscape. Also, the style of a lot of Gaelic poems is very lyrical, and often uses repetition, a lot like a song. In that poetic tradition, you see how the division between poetry and music is quite slight – they often cross over between one and the other. The poetry tells us a lot about what kind of artistic experience people like, as well as what’s important in their geography.’ ”

Lots more here. Very interesting stuff.

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Image: Tom McShane
The author of those lines is an unusual 10th century figure — Shmuel HaNagid, prime minister of the kingdom of Granada in Spain, head of both Granada’s Muslim army
and Andalusia’s Jewish community.

The force of history works in mysterious ways. Here is a story about how an ancient Arabic poetic tradition was preserved because Jewish poets valued it.

Benjamin Ramm reports at the BBC, “On 9 December 1499, the citizens of Granada awoke to a scene of devastation: the smouldering remains of over a million Arabic manuscripts, burnt on the orders of the Spanish Inquisition. …

“[Years before], as much of Europe languished in the Dark Ages, the Iberian peninsula was a cultural oasis, the brightest beacon of civilisation. Under the Umayyad dynasty, the caliphate of Al-Andalus stretched from Lisbon to Zaragoza, and centred on the Andalusian cities of Córdoba, Granada and Seville. From the 8th Century, the caliphate oversaw a period of extraordinary cross-cultural creativity known as La Convivencia (the Coexistence). …

“Among the Muslim poets of Al-Andalus, there was a concerted attempt to rediscover and reinvent the literary forms of Arabic, sophisticated and lyrical, rooted in the concept of fasaaha (clarity, elegance). The fire in Granada destroyed part of this heritage, but it survives in an unexpected form – in an imaginative body of Hebrew poetry, which illustrates the extent of cross-cultural exchange.

“Peter Cole, the foremost translator of Hebrew poetry from Al-Andalus, argues in his book The Dream of the Poem that a major legacy of the Moorish writers was to inspire Jewish poets to emulate their work. … The innovations were initiated in the 10th Century by Dunash Ben Labrat. …

“Controversially, Ben Labrat adopted Arabic poetic metre, and was accused of ‘destroying the holy tongue’ and ‘bringing calamity upon his people’. But the Hebrew renaissance that followed produced some of the most beautiful poetry in the language, and the period became known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Iberian Jewish culture. …

“At a time of intercommunal tension, it is tempting to idealise this Muslim-Jewish period of mutual flourishing. There are critics who argue against the notion of La Convivencia – some have called it a ‘myth.’ … Documentation about communal relations during this period is scant, [and] the extent of ‘coexistence’ continues to be a subject of passionate disputation. …

“The kingdom of Granada was the last territory to fall to the Christian Reconquest in 1492, after which Jews were forcibly converted or expelled. Saadia Ibn Danaan, a rabbi who wrote prose in Arabic and poetry in Hebrew, transmitted the tradition to North Africa.” Read more.

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mariannemooresplash-1Ellen’s friend and colleague Heather Cass White has come out with a new edition of poetry by Marianne Moore, the quirky inventor of “turtle top” for a car design, among other, more significant literary adventures.

I once had the pleasure of hearing Marianne Moore read at Bryn Mawr College. She looked so much like my grandmother. My parents encouraged me to read her books, providing O, To Be a Dragon! for example. Random lines stuck with me, like this statement on poetry: “I, too, dislike it.”

On the website “FSGWork in Progress,” White writes thoughtfully about the challenges presented by her subject.

“In trying to sum up the experience of having spent the last ten years editing the poetry of Marianne Moore, most recently in the New Collected Poems, I think of a recent classroom interaction I had. Toward the end of a course on twentieth-century poetry, one of my students, clearly at the end of her patience with me, demanded to know why I kept asking them, ‘But what is a poem?’ It’s probably a measure of how deeply I feel that question that I hadn’t noticed I’d asked it even once before she pointed it out.

“I do know why I am stuck on it, however. Editing Moore’s work will deprive anyone of their certainty about what a poem actually is. All poetry editing raises a fundamental issue: Is a poem a specific ordering of words on a page? And if so, which page? The one the poet originally wrote, whether by hand or type; or the one that was first published; or the one that was last published?

“If all of those arrangements of words are identical, one may duck the question, but they rarely are. Typesetters and proofreaders make mistakes, and they also make corrections which poets find agreeable. Poets change their minds. Conventions of spelling and punctuation vary from house to house, and change over time. There are competing theories about how to handle such issues, and consensus views to guide practitioners, but the questions must always be confronted.

“At the risk of seeming to brag, I will claim that confronting these questions in Moore’s work is unusually torturous. Someone had to, though, because the final record Moore left of her own work — and the standard Moore edition for several decades — has been her mendaciously titled Complete Poems (1967). …

“Creating one, however, is tricky. Her lifelong practices of revising, reordering, and redacting her poems make a special kind of hash out of any attempt to be definitive. Certainly her revisions are the most spectacular problem. Moore didn’t just write poems, she rewrote them, often completely, often more than once. …

“Moore deserves careful editorial attention because she is, by any measure, a major poet. She was and is revered by her poet peers for her inventiveness, her fierce intelligence, her wit, and her moral vision. Her work is original, with an original’s perennial newness. In editing the New Complete Poems, I have done what editors do: devised a working set of procedures to present the poet I know and value. I have not, because I cannot, settled any questions about what her poetry is or may become. Original things always exceed definitive presentation and containment. Long may her poems confound us.” More here.

In one of the ESL classes where I volunteer, we have been reading Emily Dickinson. Time to suggest Moore to the teacher, I think. Women poets don’t get nearly the respect they deserve: it pains me to recall that as much as my father wanted me to know the work of these women, he told me there were no great female poets.

Update 8/5/17: Moore editor Heather Cass White made an appearance at the Island Bound Bookstore tonight. Her talk was super. The book sounded very accessible as well as more authoritative than previous editions. Reader, I bought it.

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